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Photoshop CS6 Tutorial - RAW workflow update


Background

In this tutorial, I will be focusing on the RAW conversion process using Adobe Camera RAW 7 (ACR 7). This is a feature of Adobe Photoshop CS6 and Adobe Lightroom 4.

This is Adobe's finest RAW converter to date but also its most complex, so I felt another update in this series was called for. I cannot cover all ACR's functions in a short tutorial such as this - there are numerous Youtube training videos that do this already. I will aim to cover the main process and tools that I use in the majority of my RAW conversions.

I will assume that you will have already imported your favourite images, rated them and ruthlessly disposed of less than perfect images, using your favourite software tool. I use Breezebrowser Pro for this purpose in preference to Lightroom or any other software as it is so fast to render image thumbnails and the full screen raw image slideshow is so much better than anything else out there for evaluating images.

As a professional I have to embed my copyright information and search keywords into images for my agencies. If you do not wish to do this I recommend skipping to step 3 below.

Optional step1. First I open Bridge and go to Tools > Create metadata template. I then enter all my copyright information, which will be embeded in the image and is viewable later on in File Info (in Photoshop). Once a template is generated it can be saved, and thereafter it can be applied to all selected images in a file very quickly and simply using Tools > Append metadata (and select your saved template).

Optional step 2 At this time I also add keywords, using the keyword pallet (bottom right of the screen in Bridge) which enables you to quickly find all images with designated keywords such as birds > herons for example.

Step 3
Perform a batch rename on your files to something meaningful that won't be duplicated when your camera file numbering runs out of file numbers and starts again at zero. This is covered in the Photoshop CS3-5 tutorial


RAW conversion

The RAW converter may be launched from within Bridge or Breezebrowser Pro by double-clicking on the image but you must tell the application to do this in File>Preferences>Editor (Breezebrowser) or Edit>camera RAW Preferences (Bridge).

General tab

Before starting a RAW adjustment, I suggest that you first do a few things :

Step 4 Set colour space and resolution

Firstly, at the bottom of the RAW conversion box, you will see some underlined blue text, where it specifies the output image colour space, size and resolution. If you right click on this text, you can specify your requirements. I set mine to sRGB colour space and 300 ppi and leave size untouched.

Next hold down Ctr+K and the camera RAW preferences box will appear. I like to select "Apply sharpening to preview images only" as it is useful to see a sharpened preview, but it is much better to sharpen as the final step in Photoshop. Also I select "Save image settings in sidecar .xmp files". This saves all my RAW adjustments in a tiny file that follows the main image around (like a motorbike and sidecar!) if you move it to another location

In the above example, I have opened up an image of a church in Iceland with the Aurora borealis behind it.and the first (Basic) tab is open. (Denoted by a camera aperture symbol). If you are familiar with earlier versions of ACR you will notice that there are more sliders. There are some very useful tools at the top of the palette that were introduced in ACR 6 (in CS5) and have been extended and improved in ACR7 (CS6).I have not covered these before and so I will explore them a little later through this tutorial.

Step 5 Crop tool and Straighten tools

These are at the top of the ACR workspace and work the same as in earlier versions of ACR. I put these at the beginning of the workflow because if you plan to do a significant crop on your image, there is no point including areas that will be deleted anyway from being included and influencing your decisions.

To crop, simply select the crop tool by clicking on it (or type the letter c on the keyboard) drag out the crop area and hit enter. Press Esc to undo.You can also modify a crop by pulling on the drag handles. Once you have the crop area selected you can place your cursor in an area outside the selected area and a curved arrow will appear which enables you to rotate the image to straighten it if necessary.
Alternatively you can straighten an image by selecting the Straighten tool (A on the keyboard) and drag out a line along any existing line in your image (such as a crooked horizon) and let go - the image will be instantly straightened. Usefully, if you look at the bottom of the screen after cropping, ACR tells you the megapixel count of your cropped area.

Step 6 Lens corrections

This is another very useful feature found in later versions of ACR and is getting progressively better as more lens profiles are being added. Even excellent lenses can still show some lens distortions, chromatic aberrations (blue and red fringes) and vignetting (darkened corners - particularly on full frame cameras). You can now correct these in ACR in the lens corrections tab.

Lens corrections tab

Once you have selected your lens from the lens profiles, click the Enable lens profile Corrections box and you will see the corrections applied. On wide angle lenses, these corrections can be quite dramatic.
The Canon 500mm f4 does not appear to have a profile at the time of writing this, but the 600mm f4 does. I find that using this profile works fine, and the corrections are pretty subtle anyway.

The colour tab enables you to correct chromatic aberration and colour fringes. It is fantastically effective in its latest guise. Here is an image from a wide angle zoom lens corner. The window has bright white glazing bars, and on a sunny day these can cause nasty purple and green fringing as you can see.

chromatic abberation before

Now here is the same image corrected by adjusting the purple and green Defringe Amount sliders. I also used the hue slider on the green to get rid of the last remaining traces. I think that this is very, very, impressive.

chromatic abberation after


The Manual tab permits removal of vignetting (darkening of the corners) and you can also take full manual control as the name suggests.


Step 7 Raw adjustment sliders

OK - we are now finally ready to start work on the RAW adjustments in the basic tab (aperture symbol to the right of the workspace). Let's work through the adjustment sliders one by one in the order that they appear in the converter as the procedure is now quite different in parts to previous versions of ACR:

White Balance/Tint /Auto/Default

Just as in earlier versions of ACR, set the white balance either by eye using the temperature slider (my usual method), or by using the white balance eye-dropper tool on a neutral grey area of the image. Adjust the green and cyan tints if necessary . ACR can do a reasonable job using auto settings on some images, and makes a right pigs ear of it on others. So just click on auto and default and use the best-looking image as your starting point.

Slider changes

Earlier versions of ACR had exposure, recovery, fill light, blacks, brightness and contrast sliders.The exposure slider was used to set a white point (brightest part of the image), Recovery was used to recover any blown highlights, Fill light did the midtone exposure and blacks were used to set the black point.Once you had set your black and white points you could brighten or darken the whole image to taste with the brightness slider.

These sliders have now been replaced by rxposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks. I will demonstrate how to use them below. I should add that the remaining clarity, vibrance and saturation sliders remain unchanged from before.

A sensible change to the sliders is that they are now all initially centred at zero and in all cases, sliding them to the right lightens and to the left darkens the pixels in that part of the histogram as in the diagram below..

Histogram

A histogram in ACR7 divided up into the zones affected by the new sliders

Exposure slider

Although this slider carries the same name as in previous versions, it works completely differently in practice. Previously it behaved more like a white point setting, but now it affects the midtone areas of the histogram as you can see from the illustration above. It is now used to set the overall brightness of the scene. I suggest focusing on the main subject itself rather than the background and moving the slider left and right until it looks as good as you can get it by eye. You will probably revisit this slider again to tweak it after making other adjustments though.

White and black sliders - setting the white point and the black point

Using the white slider and black sliders set the white and black points in the image. That is to say, ensure that the histogram is not pushed outside the confines of the bounding box it sits in. So keep an eye on the histogram as you make your adjustments.

With the the Alt key held down you can actually see what is clipping in the image as you adjust the sliders and you will enable you to minimise it. Some colours - particularly vivid yellows and reds are very hard to control without making the rest of the image too dark so a compromise is sometimes required. These are dynamic range limitations of the camera's sensor and will hopefully improve with future developments.
Providing that your image is not too overexposed you will usually eliminate any clipping but there is still one last chance in the form of the highlights slider to come yet so don't worry too much at this stage.

When adjusting the blacks, again, with the Alt key held down, move the slider back to the left until the clipped pixels just disappear and the histogram looks reasonable. It is often advantageous to allow blacks to clip a little to give the image a degree of punch, but not to the extent that important shadow detail is lost. But once more, there is still the shadows tool to go so don't fret.

Contrast

This is a simple one slider adjustment that you can make by eye. I sometimes use it for speed, but if I want to get the best out of an image I will leave it set to zero and make my contrast adjustments using the tools within the Tone curve tab later. If you have contrast sett too high it may make clipping impossible to eliminate in some images.

Shadows and highlights sliders

These have a similar effect to the Shadows/highlights tool within Photoshop itself in that the shadow tool can be used to extract a surprising amount of shadow detail - say in the feathers of a crow.

The highlight tool is used to extract the maximum amount of detail in highlights - think wedding dresses or swans plumage. Once again, you can hold down the Alt key while you move the sliders and try to minimise clipping, but it is more important to ensure that the image looks good visually.If you overdo the highlight tool your whites can look a bit grey (this is beginning to sound like an advert for washing powder).

Clarity

This was introduced in CS3 but it appears to be more effective these days in CS6. It increases mid-tone contrast with a sophisticated algorithm which gives the appearance of sharpening (clarity) the image. I recommend that you view at 100% when you make the adjustments. In CS3-5 I found that most images benefited from about 30% clarity as a general rule. For CS6 20% is often more appropriate.


Unsharpened image - Clarity at zero


Unsharpened image - Clarity 20%

Vibrance

This was a superb addition from CS3 onwards. It behaves in a similar fashion to the saturation slider, but targets under-saturated colours rather than acting globally on all colours. This is hugely beneficial as it avoids acting on colours which are already nearing saturation. Vibrance is good for increasing colour saturation in an image without exaggerating skin tones for example. I find it works wonderfully in landscapes with water, as it brings out the blue hues without looking overdone as it can do in Saturation. Most images benefit from a starting setting of around 10-12.

Saturation

This remains as found in other versions of Photoshop, and controls the degree of saturation of all colours equally in an image .I rarely use it anymore now that we have the vibrance tool which is so much better.


The same image of the church after the RAW adjustments but before conversion
( the image that is - not the congregation!)

Step 7 Tone curve Tab - Point and Parametric

The point tab acts rather like curves in Photoshop - and enables you to either select points on the tone curve and adjust them to taste. It is worth trying the presets - linear/medium/strong contrast which can sometimes be very effective without further effort.

I must confess that I have never really got on with Curves in Photoshop as they are fiddly, but I do like the parametric option in ACR where you can make adjustments to the highlights, lights, darks and shadows individually to optimize the tones in the image.

Step 8 Detail tab

This addresses sharpening and noise reduction. If you followed my advice in step 4 and set the camera raw preferences to sharpen the preview only, then the sharpening adjustments will only affect the preview image and not the finished image. These can be set to any values that you feel simulate the level of sharpening that you intend to apply later in Photoshop.. I suggest Amount 95, Radius 1.0, Detail 25 , Masking 0 as being generally OK and set this in the defaults. It is much better to sharpen as the last stage in the workflow in Photoshop using Unsharp mask or Smart sharpen at a level that is appropriate to the intended purpose e.g. gentle sharpening for web use and firmer sharpening for printing. The file size also influences the degree of sharpening required, so I recommend sharpening later for the intended output.

Step 9 Noise reduction

There are two basic sliders, and if you are going to use noise reduction software such as Photoshop, Neat image or Noise Ninja at a later stage, you may want to leave these set to zero. The noise reduction within ACR is now very effective at removing noise without robbing detail provided it is used carefully and I seldom resort to using other software these days.

For many well-exposed images, depending on the ISO used at time of capture, some colour noise reduction and a tiny amount of luminance noise reduction is often all that is required. To make adjustments use the following procedure:

Select a zoom value of 100% to make the noise obvious and easy to see. (Bottom left of the RAW converter - click on the little down arrow above the "save image" box and click 100%).

Ensure that both the luminance slider and the color sliders are set to zero. Then adjust the colour slider until the colour noise in the image just disappears. Then apply just a little luminance reduction in order to reduce the appearance of granularity in the image background. If you overdo it, you will loose detail and your image will start to look "plasticky". Settings vary according to how high the Iso was set to in-camera for the selected image, but I frequently find myself using settings of around 15 for colour and 6 for luminance as a starting guideline.
There are more sliders for adjusting Luminance detail, Luminance contrast and Colour Detail. These sound impressive, but their effects are subtle at best and I have difficulty seeing much if any change when using them so I ignore them.



100% view of the church before noise reduction. I have chosen to inspect a part of the image
that both displays the noise and an area of detail to ensure I don't overdo the noise reduction.



100% view after noise reduction both Luminance and colour to 27 on the sliders. The noise
has all but gone and there is still plenty of detail - you can see the writing on the hymn board
inside the church window.



Step 10 Optional specific targeted adjustments

I usually call it a day at step 9 and open the image in Photoshop for any remaining work, but there are a few more very powerful tools hidden within ACR that can make some significant improvements to an image. They are accessed from the top toolbar next to the crop tool etc.
These goodies include the Spot removal tool (although spots can also be removed similarly later in Photoshop), the Graduated filter - great for darkening skies, the adjustment brush (great for making selective adjustments to parts of the image. These include sharpening, noise reduction, darkening/lightening etc. Finally there is the targeted adjustment tool .

The graduated filter -

I find that this is very useful when darkening washed out skies. It is often surprising how much cloud detail is lost within a bland sky that can be retrieved with this tool and it can mimic the effects of a polarising filter at time of capture. You click and drag a bar down from the top of your image to the horizon and then a whole raft of adjustments can be made. In the example below I have made adjustments to exposure, saturation and highlights selectively in just this area of the image. You will notice that the faces of the people have not been affected by the changes - magic!

Photographers in Iceland - before image

 

Same image with the graduated filter selected and adjustments made to the selected area

The targeted adjustment tool -

If you open this tool, you can use it in conjunction with several of the tabs above the sliders to the right of the ACR workspace. Perhaps two of the most useful tabs are Curves (Parametric setting) and HSL greyscale. When you have the tool active the cursor becomes a cross with a small circle beside it. If you click and hold anywhere on the image the cross becomes a two-headed arrow that can be dragged up and down or left and right like a slider. In curves you can for example click on a black area and drag the arrow up to lighten this and other similar black areas. You will see the curve graph change accordingly. You could then select an area of midtone and drag the arrow down and decrease the brightness of this and other similar pixels.

In the HSL tab, you can select a coloured area and change its hue, saturation or luminance (brightness). Note that the effect is global, in other words all similarly coloured areas in the image will also be affected. Here is an example of a background colour change done in this way..


White admiral with original background

Same image with TAT selected on HSL tab. Note the arrows which
I dragged to the left. This affected the green hue.


The adjustment brush-

This is a very useful tool as its effects are targeted to where you paint them on with a brush rather than being applied globally like the other tools. Once the adjustment brush is selected a raft of options open up including some really useful ones like sharpening and noise reduction (you can selectively sharpen softer parts of the image for example) in addition to the usual shadows, highlights etc

Let's see the brush in action.Remember our graduated filter example above ? Well - if you look at the top left corner, you can see that in addition to darkening the sky, the filter unfortunately also darkened the rocks and ice.


By switching to the adjustment brush, we can select this area and lighten it again!



Select the brush (at the top of the ACR workspace) and the tool palette opens up.
At the bottom of the palette click on the automask and show mask boxes and select a lurid colour for the mask. In this case I have chosen orange as it stands out well.
At the top of the palette above the sliders click add and this will add a new adjustment pin to where you start painting a mask. By selecting the automask, the paintbrush is restricted to boundaries which helps you paint within the lines. To change the brush you use the size setting and can alter the feather radius for a softer blended edge. Finally when selecting tricky bits like hair, the flow and opacity sliders help dilute the effect and assist in building up a decent edge. Once you have the area masked you can turn off show mask and then start to use the sliders. I changed the highlights, shadows and exposure. Here is the finished image..



If you would like to learn more about using the adjustment brush and the other sliders mentioned I suggest that you search with Google to find some training videos on YouTube. I recommend the following video for a very good explanation of the Adjustment brush for example: Adjustment brush


Other Tabs


The HSL/grey scale tab

Allows you to individually change a range of colours hue/saturation/luminance (brightness) globally within the image. They can be useful to emphasize or reduce an individual colour in an image.

If you want to work in grey scale (black and white) This is a great place to do it. Just click to "Convert to grey scale" and adjust the sliders to make the image look as you would like. This removes the necessity to carry out conversions in the channel mixer in Photoshop - which used to be the favoured method.

Split toning

I have no use for split toning - so I never use this, so I will leave you to play if interested.

Camera calibration

Only of use if your camera routinely outputs colour biases. I have not found any use for this function. This tab does allow you to revert to the colours of previous versions of ACR, but why you would want to I can't imagine.

Presets

Once you have a set of RAW settings that you want to be able to save and routinely access, you can select and apply them into here. I have a set of saved presets that I use as my starting point for all images, and start correcting from there. This can save a lot of time.

Fx Post crop vignetting

This tab contains some effects such as adding grain to an image or adding a black or white vignette around the edges of the image. This can be done in Photoshop but this is a very easy way to achieve the effect.

I very quickly made this image by simply using the intuitive sliders in the highlight setting. I think it would make a nice greetings card. For the record, my settings were Amount +78, midpoint 48, roundness +8, feather 45, highlight zero.




Step 11 open the image in Photoshop

When all adjustments are completed, either click Done to apply the settings, or click Open image to open in the image editor ( Photoshop CS6) or click Save if you just want to save the image as a TIFF or DNG file without editing it further. You will need to set CS6 as your editor in your preferences.

Money saving tip !

There probably remains little to be done with your image in Photoshop now beyond cloning out any unwanted elements like a telegraph wire or blade of grass and sharpening it for output. Notice how the emphasis has shifted over the years from nearly everything being done in Photoshop to nearly everything being done in the RAW converter. Photoshop is very expensive, but if you use Breezebrowser (inexpensive) to browse and select your images and use ACR to convert your selected RAWS you could get away with buying the inexpensive Photoshop elements to finish and save your images !



Saving time by doing batch conversions

If you have taken a series of shots under identical conditions (say, you let rip with the motordrive and have a sequence of ten similar shots for example), you can save a lot of time by doing a batch conversion

In Bridge or Breezebrowser, select all the images that you want to batch-process (by holding down Ctrl as you click on each image). Then right click > Open in camera RAW.

All the selected images will appear in a vertical column down the left side of the screen and the first image will appear in the preview window. You now have a choice of working in two different ways. You can either click "Select all" and as you make changes to RAW settings they will automatically be applied to all the images selected. The disadvantage of this method is that you have to wait for the changes to be applied after each change you make. I find it much better to select just one image, make all the necessary adjustments and as the last step, click "select all" and then "synchronize" .

The synchronize dialogue box will then appear, and you can either synchronize all settings or just the ones you would like to apply. You would not usually want to apply a level or crop setting to all images, so I tend to leave these un ticked, but check all the rest.

You then have the usual options to save the image or open them all in Photoshop or simply apply the settings and close.


If all this sounds like a lot of work compared to working with jpegs, then you are probably right, but you simply could not achieve the end result that RAW processing achieves if you just let the camera's on-board system decide on what parameters to apply to each image. If you blow highlights in a jpeg, they are lost forever for example - blow them in a RAW, and you stand a much better chance of recovering them. Also, many of the post processing adjustments that are normally required in Photoshop for a jpeg (Levels/hue and saturation/colour balance/shadow -highlight /curves etc) are no longer necessary as you have made those adjustments in the RAW conversion process.

Final labour-saving tip

Finally, if you only want to view your RAW images on your computer screen, why bother to convert them at all ? If you use the supreme RAW slideshow facility in Breezebrowser you can see your images fullscreen without bothering to convert them. You can then just convert those images that you want to print out or e.mail or display on the web etc. I don't bother converting my holiday snaps for example - I just view them in Brezebrowser.


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